Rioters, not speech, to blame for violence in Egypt, Libya

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In the United States, if a movie makes people mad enough to riot, we blame the rioters, not the movie. In much of the rest of the world, it’s the other way around. That’s the difference our First Amendment makes. And our government agencies should affirm as much.

That’s why an official statement released yesterday by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, is troubling. A movie called “Innocence of Muslims,” produced in the U.S. by an anti-Muslim filmmaker, has sparked protests in Egypt and Libya, where U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was killed along with three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Before the Libya tragedy, with the U.S. Embassy in Cairo fearing siege by protesters, the embassy posted in apparent reference to the movie a statement on its website that said, in part:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. … Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

The embassy statement confuses crucial aspects of the First Amendment.

Yes, “respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy,” but the First Amendment does not outlaw disrespect for religion by individuals. It outlaws actions by government that would establish an official religion or interfere with religious practice. Further, the First Amendment protects the freedom to speak — including the freedom to criticize, condemn or insult any or all religions.

So for an arm of the U.S. government to condemn material that hurts “religious feelings” is itself misplaced. What should be condemned is making speech an excuse for violence.

The Obama administration later disavowed the Cairo embassy statement. And President Barack Obama was a bit more First Amendment-oriented in a statement condemning the rioting and killings: “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

The film denigrates Islam by portraying Muhammad “as a fraud, a womanizer and a madman in an overtly ridiculing way, showing him having sex and calling for massacres,” the Associated Press reported. Still, concerning the president’s statement, from a First Amendment standpoint it’s a little off-putting to say that our nation “rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” Denigration is speech. Denigration is nothing compared to the actual violent religious persecution of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is and others around the world.

No, we can’t expect other cultures around the world to see things as we do. If Muslims think a film insults the Prophet Muhammad, they have every right to be angry. If Christians think artwork in a public museum in the United States insults Christianity, they have every right to be angry.

But we cannot excuse letting anger degenerate into violence, let alone murder, over “religious feelings.”


Riots over Muhammad cartoons challenge freedoms

Drawing fire and blood: free speech and religion

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